The parking reserved for doctors was jammed with sparkly Mercs, BMWs and Audis. There was also a Toyota Corolla. Probably belonged to one of them Cuban doctors who come over here and take all our jobs. And our women. Bloody Cubans.
I had to park a fair distance from the entrance. Hospitals are designed that way deliberately. The longer your walk, the more exercise you get. And they don’t even charge you for it. The medical profession is full of good and kind people with nothing but your best interests at heart.
Speaking of which, mine was pounding savagely by the time I reached the sliding doors. Not from the 50m walk, as you might expect, but out of frustration from waiting for my 78-year-old father to catch up.
When we got out of the car, he kept dropping his walking stick. “What’s happening,” I said. “You got dropsy?” He gave me the lazy eye. “Actually, yes,” he said. Turns out that dropsy is the old-time name for oedema, an accumulation of fluid in the tissue. In his case, the legs. I like to think I laughed out of nervous tension and not because there’s something wrong with me.
The bottoms of his jeans are constantly damp. He drinks a glass of water and it comes out of his calves. That’s pretty hilarious when you think about it. But it gets better. His legs only leak because mongooses keep scratching him. For the last couple of years, a Durban North posse has been coming around for two meals a day. They get fish, peanuts, bananas and home-baked bread. They eat better than I do.
They don’t sit on the veranda table waiting politely to be fed, like the monkeys do, but stampede into the house – up to thirty at a time – looking for my father. In the kitchen, they gather around his feet squeaking and squabbling like a furry invasion force armed with tiny teeth and insatiable appetites. If he goes to sit down, they swarm all over him. Anyone’s legs would leak if they were set upon by rampaging hordes of carnivorous mammals using their claws as crampons.
I have never wanted to be a doctor. Sick people get on my nerves. I want to slap them and tell them it’s all in their head. This only really works for mental patients, though. Obviously I’m excluding myself, here. When I’m sick, I expect teams of attractive brow-moppers and solicitous murmurers working in shifts to attend to me. This is unlikely to happen and I have consequently given my body strict instructions to not fall seriously ill until I have found someone who is prepared to love me in sickness and in health without insisting on invoking the vows that inevitably sabotage the chances of it ever happening.
“Hurry up, you old bastard,” I said, as my father shuffled towards the entrance. He smiled through his beard. It might have been gas. “Old bastard” was a term of endearment used by my mother who died nearly five years ago. They were married for 55 years. I doubt she meant it as a term of endearment.
The day before, he had an appointment with the anaesthetist – or what might have been the anaesthetist’s assistant. Her report, emailed to my father later that day and copied to the relevant doctors, described him as “a pleasant gentleman, emaciated and unkempt”.
My mother would’ve disagreed with the pleasant part and I disagreed with the emaciated bit, but I was baffled by the unkempt remark. I thought he looked pretty smart, even if he did smell faintly of monkey poo. Was there perhaps something in the medical handbooks that dealt with matters of a sartorial nature?
Of course he looked dishevelled. An hour earlier, he’d been covered in mongooses. Sure, he cuts his own hair and hasn’t brushed it in 25 years, but Einstein’s hair was also a hot mess.
The old bastard has been a structural engineer for nearly half a century. He has built bridges, buildings and hospitals across KwaZulu-Natal. He can quote Shakespeare, understands the ancient Greeks and knows his way around thermals when strapped into a glider. Unkempt, my ass.
So through the sliding doors we went. He mumbled something about crossing the threshold from free will to destiny but I was having none of that nonsense and told him to pick up the pace. We had to get to the cafeteria before it filled up with people coming to visit the doomed. He’s a vegetarian and the menu was limited. I told him to start eating meat because time was against us. Well, not so much me. Although we never can be sure. But if I was going to have a heart attack, I couldn’t have chosen a better spot to have it in.
My sister was with us. She’s done a lot to keep him company and look after him, but then she knocked over her cappuccino and instantly we were back to nine years old, shouting at each other and interrupting my father who was telling us how he had calculated the cost of the operation against his projected time left to live and had wrestled with the decision to … we didn’t understand what he was talking about. Neither of us inherited his maths brain, my feet were soaked in coffee and my sister had somehow found a way to blame me for the spillage.
Then he was called to give blood, and by blood I mean money. For the next half an hour, he filled out forms and handed over his credit card. The cost of the hospital stay alone was horrendous. But not as horrendous as his decision, a few months earlier, to cancel his medical aid because they had increased the premium by what he deemed an unacceptable amount. My father doesn’t like to feel ripped off. It’s one of the reasons he interacts only with monkeys and mongooses.
Off to the surgical ward, then. Five beds to a room. It was like a backpackers for sick people. Truth is, only sick people would charge those prices in the first place. How about we treat the greed disease first? Oh, look. I’ve just stumbled upon the cure for the world. And moving on.
A woman arrived, wheeling something that looked like hand luggage. She assembled it and began probing his heart beat with some kind of wand. It was like an ultrasound. Nobody should have to see and hear their father’s heart beating on a screen. Or even see their father with his shirt off. It was all deeply unnatural and I had to turn away. I used those precious few moments to check if anyone in the hospital was on Tinder. They weren’t.
I wonder what the surgeons are thinking tonight. There will be two of them. One is removing a kidney, one will be doing something unspeakable with the intestines. I have no idea if they’ll be doing it simultaneously or taking turns to stab and slice. At the cafeteria, I thought of offering one of my kidneys. When the bill arrived, I took care of it. Dad was so grateful that I decided not to mention the kidney.
I’d be very worried if I were a surgeon with someone’s life in my hands tomorrow. I doubt I’d be able to sleep. I would toss and turn and eventually pass out just before dawn and then a hadeda would wake me up and I’d get to the hospital still a bit drunk and embarrass myself by accidentally lopping off a perfectly healthy lung. It happens.
The old curmudgeon fed and watered me for eighteen years and bailed me out more than once, in every sense. I hope he wakes up.